Tories battle for devolution initiative

Assemblies for Scotland and Wales: Forsyth and Hague set to increase local powers to head-off campaigns for self-rule
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Scotland Correspondent

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, tried to upstage the launch of Labour and the Liberal Democrats' blueprint for a Scottish parliament yesterday when he announced new measures to devolve power to local councils in Scotland and to democratise government advisory groups.

In a St Andrew's Day lecture, Mr Forsyth unveiled plans to transfer powers from the Scottish Office to Scotland's 29 new unitary local authorities. He said he wanted to give councils a single allocation for capital expenditure and allow councillors to set their own spending priorities. He also planned to give authorities more control over housing, bylaws and education. The measures will be introduced next year.

Mr Forsyth also revealed that the Scottish Economic Council, a group of business and union leaders who advise him on how to spend the Scottish Office's pounds 14.5bn annual budget, would in future deliberate more openly to encourage wider public debate about spending plans.

Mr Forsyth's proposals, which came one day after he granted the Commons Scottish Grand Committee of MPs new powers to scrutinise Scottish legislation and question senior ministers in Scotland, are the latest stage of the Government's attack on the devolution plans put forward by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Ministers hope that by offering Scots administrative devolution, they will blunt the case for legislative devolution.

However, opposition MPs also used Scotland's national day to unveil their more radical proposals at a ceremony in Edinburgh. Labour and the Liberal Democrats - backed by church leaders, councillors and community groups - formally launched their final blueprint for the first Scottish parliament in 300 years.

Under the plan, agreed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a parliament of 129 members would be established in Edinburgh to run Scotland's "home affairs" - education, health, the law, housing, local government, transport, planning, industry, the environment, the arts and media, heritage, the national lottery, and sport. Although the parliament would be semi-autonomous and have the power to raise income tax by up to 3p in the pound, Scotland would remain part of the UK, with Westminster determining policies on the economy, defence, foreign affairs, immigration, nationality and social security.

Tony Blair has promised a Scottish assembly within the first year of a Labour government. Labour and the Liberal Democrats welcomed the blueprint as "the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Scotland", in which "unelected patronage will be replaced by real democracy". George Robertson, Labour's Scotland spokesman, and Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrats' Scottish leader, dismissed Mr Forsyth's reforms as "totally inadequate to meet the needs of ordinary Scots".

But Mr Forsyth said a Scottish parliament with tax-raising powers would "fuel wage demands and discourage inward investment", he said. The Scottish National Party would use an assembly as a "springboard" to argue for independence. If they voted for legislative devolution, Scots risked "sleepwalking into independence", he warned.

The Tories planned to give "new, real powers" to Scotland's 72 Westminster MPs,councils and civic groups. This was "real devolution for people, not for politicians". Holding out the prospect of further reforms, he said: "These measures are the first wave in a tide of reform which can sweep across the shoreline of government to change the shape of it forever."

t A significant number of Labour MPs believe a future Labour government would have to cut the number of MPs in Scotland, according to a Harris poll, writes John Rentoul.

The survey could increase the pressure on Mr Blair, the Labour leader, to promise to refer the issue to an independent electoral commission after the general election.

Scotland has 72 MPs - many more in relation to its population than England - and some senior Labour MPs believe that arrangement would be "unsustainable" if a Scottish parliament was set up. They say a Scottish assembly, responsible for Scottish issues, with tax- raising powers, would remove the case for extra Westminster MPs.

A quarter of the 65 Labour MPs interviewed by Harris agreed that "in the event of a Scottish parliament being created with substantive powers, the number of Scottish MPs sitting at Westminster ought to be reduced".

Predictably, none of the Scottish Labour MPs agreed. All 16 MPs who did agree represented English and Welsh seats. All 76 Conservative MPs who were interviewed agreed that Scottish representation should be cut. The poll is to be published in Parliamentary Monitor next week.

George Robertson, Labour's Scottish affairs spokesman, this week sent a note to Labour MPs advising them how to defend the party's present position, which is to maintain the existing over-representation for Scotland at Westminster. Scotland will still need MPs in Parliament to represent its interests in UK economic policy, defence and foreign affairs, the note says.

One MP who received the advice said Mr Robertson's arguments "wouldn't last two minutes in a general election campaign".